Too many university students struggle in their first year because they are left unprepared by their schools and sixth forms to face the style of university learning. Supported continuously by teachers though GCSEs and A-Levels, the complete independence of university academics often confuses students and leads to unnecessary problems in their first year.
So what exactly is the difference between pre-university and university learning, and why is it confounding students?
Many argue that the style of A-Level and GCSE examinations is at fault, with teachers training students not to learn their subjects but pass their exams. A common criticisms of pre-university examinations such as GCSEs and A-Levels are not only that they are being ‘dumbed-down’ year on year, but that the actually style of questioning is not ‘learning’ but ‘drilling’.
This means that students often don’t completely understand the concepts in their subject that they must explore in depth at university level, giving them a poor foundation for further study. Learning by rote has become the norm, with students often get by simply by learning quotations and regurgitating points they learned from SparkNotes. Although such superficial learning may get students past A-Levels, when it comes to university they often get a rude awakening.
Yet an important point to make is that their ill-preparedness is often not their own fault. For all the criticisms of how A-Level examinations work, students who want to achieve top grades must still work incredibly hard. The problem however is the type of work that A-Levels encourage them to do is completely at odds with the type of work that universities do.
While group work, interactive learning and other ‘new’ classroom styles of learning are desperately in fashion in schools and sixth-forms, students are often left unprepared for traditional lecture learning. The ability to concentrate for one or two hours and simply make notes from a speaker is often lost on students who are coached through the academic careers that group work is the way to learn. Many lectures have called for teachers to incorporate more lecture-style classes into their classes, but the pleas often fall on deaf ears.
Lectures are often just brief outlines of topics that students must learn, and only scratch at the surface of all the information students must understand for their exams. The real learning at university is independent and usually comes in the form of assigned reading. Very few A-Levels involve even a fraction of the reading that a first-year humanities or social science students must undertake, leaving most students overwhelmed and lacking basic skills like scanning of texts. Students often must read multiple chapters or even entire books of difficult academic texts for seminars and tutorials, but A Levels simply do not prepare them for that level of learning.
Lack of school-led university preparation
In the US it is not uncommon for schools to hold their own classes on not only on how to apply to university but also how to succeed once you are there. Partnerships between schools and universities have led to a massive rise in high school students taking courses at local colleges, helping them earn credits for their first year in university but also giving them a taste of what exactly university demands. Such schemes do exist in the UK, but are not common enough.
Taking note from independent schools
Independent of the national curriculum and often ditching A-Levels for broader examinations such as the International Baccalaureate, independent schools often better prepare students for the rigours of university. Although it is easy to write off their achieves as being due to the fact they have larger budgets, it is not just the amount of privately educated students that get into higher education but the quality. Surveys show that in the first 3 months, students from private schools adjust easier to the hard work of university due to the fact that they are often better prepared for what universities expect by their schools.
So what’s the answer?
Schools and sixth forms are not adequately preparing all students for university, instead being forced to push hard at exam performance due to government targets at the expense of overall education. By simply utilizing lecture-style learning, encouraging more independent reading and setting up more university-preparation classes – schools can help not only get young people to university but help them flourish once they get there.